It was the summer of 1987 and Gorbachev’s perestroika was in the air when Peter Norel landed at the YMCA in Mumbai’s Byculla, bearing a trunk full of basketball literature penned in Russian. Many American coaches had stopped by at the ‘Y’ in Colaba, Andheri and Bandra in preceding years, and continued James Naismith’s gleeful gospel of a bright orange ball that bounced and flew and evoked much merriment. In fact, it birthed one of the city’s most vivacious teams — the Mastan YMCA, known for their dazzling flair.
The American coaches typically came in with the Peace Corps and stayed back to polish the skills and techniques of Central Bombay girls and boys, who would hungrily latch onto every word and trick they offered.
But Norel was a Swede, fresh off a coaching-the-coaches stint in Soviet Union. Though 1986-87, the Russians had developed avant-garde techniques in basketball and Norel would lug the meticulously assembled Russkiy literature to this leafy hoops nursery at the heart of Bombay. Who else but a Scandinavian to build that bridge between the east and the west, as India found itself on the threshold of basketball’s newest foray.
The iconic American Gus Macker’s 3-on-3 format was moving into Michigan from where it would take off into a phenomenon. The Russians, though, had refused to play this American streetball version of basketball just for a lark. Taking cutting edge leaps into technique on way to the 1988 Olympic gold medal in the traditional 5×5 the next year, Russians would beat the Americans memorably on the way.
Norel, in Moscow at the time, would fly south carrying blueprints of these Russian 3-on-3 training drills. It was India’s first glimpsing of the three-a-side basketball, a discipline added recently to the Olympic programme for Tokyo. And the ‘Y’ — as YMCA gets called — is quietly reminiscing, even as it celebrates Naismith’s 125 years with the game.
A social lab
Mumbai’s YMCAs had always been social labs – Agripada and Nagpada kids were routinely cajoled to bounce the ball and shoot a hoop so they didn’t loiter onto the streets and take the wrong way. Playing ball would fetch them employment with the railways, police and in banks – their futures made, even as many got picked for India in those days.
Central YMCA – or Mastan – would, of course, revel in the physicality of contact, their players never having to look at the ball which the fingers dribbled and which flew at speed, while they snarled wickedly at opponents and effected steals with ruffian grins, making them irresistible to watch on any day. Opponents tried every trick in the book to slow down their game. But 30 years ago, Norel brought the measured 3×3 matrix to this labyrinth of thrill, Bombay’s Central YMCA.
Melvin Louis, general secretary of Bombay YMCA International House, remembers the summer of ’87 when Norel came. A lanky player at Colaba, he would watch the pied piper of Basketball Lite & Lightning lead the way. “That year the big shift happened when Norel came from a Scandinavian country. We used to play 10 men to a single ball, but Norel came and announced that every kid should have a ball,” he recalls.
“Cages came up in every ground, and Norel introduced half-court play to Bombay with adjustable rings and many balls on the court. He just completely changed the mode of training,” Louis recalls.
The YMCA would spend a small fortune translating all the texts from Russian to English. “The Soviets were kings of the sport in 1987, and we had a Swede bring Russian knowledge on an American game to us. Those were exciting times, new beginnings,” Louis says, sitting ramrod straight on a table piled with the translated books and albums from heyday.
Colaba was still football-crazy, so chugging into Bombay Central where Mastan and Nagpada Neighbourhood House and Western Railways played was akin to a visit to the shrine for all ball lovers those days.
Even those trained by the Peace Corps would stop by to reacquaint themselves with this new game with a single basket and D on half-court and individualised offense and defense. It wasn’t just bonsai basketball, shortened in time. The whole geometry had rotated. “In 3on3 the baskets were on the sides of the court. It was more intense, of course and faster, but shot-making became completely sensational — as every player got more time on the ball,” Louis adds. This coincided with one of the biggest superstars emerging from the area.
A superstar is born
Shahid Qureshi was an exceptional talent, a power forward technically so immaculate he boasted a gloriously refined defense. He was headed to India’s grandest team, TISCO, enroute Mastan, where Norel would spot him and chisel his graceful game. “He could put you in a trance with his game,” recalls Kumar Joshi, a 5’5” guard who watched the phenomenon rise, with Norel guiding and training him on 3on3 hoops.
Qureshi would end up scoring a contract with a top club in the Swedish league thanks to Norel, and play for two seasons, including the 3on3. He was perhaps India’s first export to Europe in basketball. The NBA would come to Mastan 20 years later, but India’s first brush with three-a-side-on-one-hoop had come via a Swede who saw the spark in the talented Indian, and trained him with Russian expertise in the American sport.
India wouldn’t miss out on a trend that had started globally in the late 80s, and would sweep into the Olympics three decades later. In 2007, in fact, India would be part of the 8-team inaugural 3on3 tournament at the Asian Indoor Games in Macau (won by Iran), finishing 5th and losing narrowly to China in what was the world’s first meet in the format.
Indian women – Geethu Anna Jose at her peak, mum-of-one Manisha Dange, talented ball handler Anitha P and Pratima Singh (now married to Ishant Sharma) would in fact win the 2013 FIBA Asia 3×3 gold medal at Doha four Mays ago, while Shireen Limaye and Kiranjit Kaur would medal at China. The day the Olympics announcement came, a Swede would have toasted a ‘Skal’ to the 3on3 in some corner of the world, thinking back to the day when Russian texts were hauled into the Mumbai ‘Y’ for a 3-on-3 and then some.